Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 6: six seals and four horsemen

This is the fifth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 5, Song to the Lamb. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading. 

We come now to chapter 6, and to a set of characters who are among the best-known figures in popular culture arising from this book. We see four riders on horses, generally known (though not in the text) as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

In the previous chapter, the Lamb who had been slain was handed a sealed scroll (i.e. a book), closed with seven seals. Here we see six of the seals opened - the scroll is not read, but the opening of each seal has a strange and catastrophic effect on the world. It is the beginning of the unravelling of the way the world has been, the beginning of the end times.

The opening of each of the first four seals leads to the release to the world of a horse and its rider, summoned in turn by one of the four living creatures calling 'Come!'. Each horse is a different colour (white, red, black, green); and each of the riders has a different characteristic. The first holds a bow, and is described that 'he came out conquering and to conquer'. The second holds a huge sword and 'is permitted to take peace from the earth'. The third holds a pair of scales and is accompanied by a voice talking of food and payment. The fourth is simply described as Death, followed by Hades, and they are given authority over a quarter of the earth, to kill by sword, famine, pestilence, and wild animals.

Traditionally, the four horsemen have been called Pestilence, War, Famine and Death. They have been greatly feared throughout 2000 years of Christian history, and depicted as signs of the end. But we don't need to look to the end times to see their presence; they are everywhere, in the here and now. But the more we see those terrible four coming (and of course the first three are all linked and feed off each other and feed Death), the worse things become.

The criticism is often levelled against parts of the Christian faith that it is individualistic, too concerned with individual salvation and not enough with wider injustice. There is some truth in that, though the teachings of Jesus have plenty to say about injustice (and the whole story of the Hebrew scriptures is one of collective justice). Things do get more individualistic in the letters of St Paul. But here we are right back at systemic effects. The work of the four horsemen is that which affects the whole world.

Uncomfortably, their work appears to be sanctioned, or at least called out, by the Lamb of God and the four living creatures in front of the throne of God. What can we make of this? Surely this is not saying that God sanctions pestilence, war, famine & death? Later chapters may or may not help, we shall see. But I'm reminded apocalyptic literature is a cry of the oppressed against the powerful (see my sermon on Daniel 7 for more on this theme), and that when oppressed people are hurting, they sometimes want to kick back, at least in their imaginations. It's clear from the start of Revelation that John and the people to whom he wrote were very much persecuted for their faith; and that some of the book is an imagination of God's comeback on their oppressors. Sometimes people in a bad enough situation just want to tear down the whole system, however bad things might become as a result (I've just heard a podcast by Rob Bell and Peter Rollins arguing among other things that this was one reason for the election of Donald Trump).

Two more seals to mention. The fifth seal is about those persecuted people, those killed for faith, whose souls become revealed when the seal is opened; they are dressed in white and told to wait for others who are still to be killed, whereupon they will be rescued together - not entirely encouraging! The sixth seal leads to great destruction upon the world - the sun is black, the stars fall, the sky and the mountains vanish; and the powerful hide in terror from the "wrath of the Lamb". End times indeed, and the beginning of greater and greater destruction, as the book recounts. I will want to hold on to the thought that this is the literature of the oppressed.

Next reading: ch 7: marking the righteous souls

1 comment:

  1. I like your insight that "this is the literature of the oppressed" and there is more to reflect on there. However, the Bible is full of stories of destruction that are interpreted as the justice of God, The Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, Nineveh (destruction averted), the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, ...

    Do we interpret these all as literatures of the oppressed?

    These stories don't sit well with my image of God. Where these destructions are of the nature of natural disasters I can tell myself that over a longer scale these are part of creative forces in the world. Where they are at human hands I can argue they are evidence of human failings (sins if you will). But to interpret them as capricious acts of the divine seeking to punish one group when "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" I can not do; or cannot do without letting go of the image of the divine I wish to hold onto.

    This topic is too broad and significant for a short blog post comment. Further I am not sure if I am contributing or distracting from your Advent meditations.